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RFID and Zero Accidents

MIT researchers and Italy's Enel power company are developing advanced technologies and processes to improve safety at power plants and construction sites.
By Bob Violino
Jan 17, 2011—Safety is a major concern in building and running power plants, because an accident can cause long delays in construction and greatly increase operational costs. Currently, most safety-planning and reporting processes involve labor-intensive manual data collection and post-accident forensics. Now, a research project known as Future Enel aims to transform safety monitoring and management, through the use of radio frequency identification and other advanced technologies.

The proving ground for the use of these new technologies in the energy industry is one of the world's largest construction sites—a €4 billion ($5.2 billion), 4,000-employee nuclear power plant located in Mochovce, Slovakia, owned by Rome-based Enel, Italy's largest power company and Europe's second largest utility by installed capacity. Future Enel is the brainchild of Gennaro De Michele, Enel Research's executive VP, and Carlo Ratti, the director of the Senseable City Laboratory, a Cambridge, Mass., entity of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that is developing RFID-based sensor technologies for the project. Ratti also serves as Future Enel's principal investigator.

The driving force behind this undertaking is Enel's corporate goal of having zero accidents at its plants and at building sites, says Andrea Riberti, the company's head of advanced diagnostics and technologies for safety, who is responsible for reporting on the progress of MIT's research. "Future Enel aims to ensure an optimum level of safety, efficiency and reliability in work areas, yard sites and power plants," he says, "through the introduction of advanced technologies, new processes and rules to enable an effective and shared change."

Future Enel, which launched in March 2010, is part of a three-year initiative that the firm calls the Zero Accidents Project (ZAP). An evaluation of Future Enel's first year will determine whether RFID and other technologies can dramatically increase power-plant safety. Based on the results of that evaluation, Enel will decide how to continue with the project, which will involve the use of a host of new technology solutions.

The Senseable City Laboratory, part of MIT's department of urban studies and planning, describes Future Enel as a multi-disciplinary initiative "aimed at researching futuristic sensor technologies applied to the construction and operation life-cycle management of energy plants that will contribute to shaping the vision of energy management in the 21st century." Several other MIT groups are working on the project: the MIT Media Lab Responsive Environments Group (REG); the Tangible Media Group (TMG); the Humans and Automation Laboratory (HAL), part of the university's department of aeronautics and astronautics; and the MIT Italy Program.

"Power-plant operations in the energy industry today are highly instrumented process-control systems," says Stephen Miles, the Senseable City research scientist heading up the first phase of Future Enel. "By contrast, the monitoring of construction and ongoing maintenance of these plants has not seen the same level of investment, despite the extraordinarily high cost of an accident."

The ability to gather information from construction activities at the site—at an unprecedented level of granularity, employing RFID and other technologies—holds the promise of identifying factors that might help prevent accidents, Miles adds.
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